Community is an empty term used to mobilize, manipulate or persuade people to act in a way that overlooks real differences in power and authority. It’s power as a rhetorical device lies in its very ambiguity. Thus we all ‘belong’ to arbitrarily defined communities such as ethnicity, occupation, sexual orientation, or even hobby. Some people self identify in multiple communities simultaneously. Yet, what is community? Can we define it in concrete terms? Is there a residential or geographical aspect to community? Is there a common set of values or beliefs that under girds one’s community? Can we accurately define the membership of a community? The difficulty in clearly answering these questions is what allows us all to claim to membership in a community of one sort or another. Thus, community becomes a social act or a process. It is not a analytic unit with clear boundaries.
It is important to separate the use of ‘community’ as a political device or social act from its analytic use. Individuals or groups may employ a self-concept of community. However, as social analysts it is instructive to interrogate the concept of community analytically. We should not simply assume its existence.
As an anthropologist I am intensely interested in how people understand and give meaning to their world. I am also aware that these understandings are located within wider fields of power, history, and social processes. While it is not my job to ‘reveal’ the invention or falsehood of community per se, it is important that both the constructed/ideological component and the material reality of the social world within which we live is fully understood. This is especially important for those seeking to effect or manage change. If, for example, notions of community are inaccurate descriptions of social reality what might we conclude about models of change that are based on a notion of community as a real entity or methodologies that assume without question that communities exist? This leads to the following question: how are different conceptions of community used, for what purpose, and by whom?
Some of the explanation might lie in the way that community has been used (‘operationalized’) in social science research. Some, such as the conservative educational theorist Mark Holmes, invoke a notion of community that reverberates with nostalgia and loss (‘we live in an age of weakened community,’ a la Durkheim: see also, Talcott Parsons a 1950s Durkheimian social theorist). Beyond this sort of rhetorical invocation an entire school of social research emerged in the US called ‘community studies.’ Here the assumption was that objectively identifiable social units, called communities, could be separated from their encapsulating society and studied by the researcher. These communities, especially as studied by the ‘Chicago School of Sociologists’ were typically comprised of recent immigrants (Whyte’s Street Corner Society is the exemplar to consider) who carried with them the vestigial structures of ‘traditional’ society (read European peasant and/or ‘primitive’). The hallmark of these early community studies is their ahistorical presentist tone. They assume a homogenous unchanging community structure. When change occurs it does so as the result of external forces acting upon the community.
The anthropologist Eric R. Wolf calls this a ‘billiard ball model of society’ in which each community, culture or society might be thought of as a separate billiard ball. Change comes through the application of some external force (the pool cue) and the balls bounce off each other and the side of the table. Yet, as Wolf reminds us, our social world is not as neat and organized as the Billiard table. There are no pool cues adding force. Each community, culture, or society is not a uniformly shaped ball.
As a concept community ultimately obscures reality. It substitutes for social forces and process that are rooted in real and consequential power differences. From a research or methodological point of view, community is one of those concepts that can not be identified, located, or even studied unless we resort to arbitrarily defined boundaries (i.e. by defining community as all the people whose children go to school x or live within the area bounded by streets a,b,c,and d). Yet, in arbitrarily delimiting the notion of community we lose sight of the way in which social reality is actually organized. In an important and fundamental way there is no ‘community’ to study or observe. Nostalgic references to something that, in reality never really existed, will leave us always bemoaning the loss of community and prevent us from finding effective solutions to important social problems. Employing a concept of community might help in shaping and motivating change, but it will not help us make sense of the processes of change themselves.